By Mike Lillis - 06/27/12 05:52 PM EDT
Leading House Democrats on Wednesday urged the nation's powerful gun lobby to butt out of the partisan fight over a measure to hold U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) warned House lawmakers last week that it will score Thursday's vote on the Republicans' contempt resolution, which accuses Holder of stonewalling a GOP investigation into a bungled gun-walking program under his Department of Justice (DOJ).
"What the heck is the NRA doing getting involved in scoring votes on an issue of a contempt citation?" Becerra, vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said during a press briefing in the Capitol.
Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) also questioned the NRA's involvement, calling it an "extraordinary" step even as he conceded it will likely swing some Democratic votes behind the contempt measure.
"The NRA is a major force on this Hill," Larson said. "It seems rather extraordinary that they would score this issue, but some members are impacted by that."
Behind House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Republicans have accused Holder of failing to comply with a long-running GOP investigation into the "Fast and Furious" program, an Arizona-based operation of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) that sought to battle Mexican drug cartels by tracking guns across the border.
The secretive program was exposed after two assault rifles associated with the operation were recovered at the site of the murder of a U.S. border patrol agent in December 2010.
Though all sides have condemned the Fast and Furious program, Issa's investigation has taken on a severely partisan tone, with Republicans all but blaming the administration for the agent's death and Democrats accusing GOP leaders of staging "a partisan witch hunt," in the words of Becerra.
The NRA jumped into the fray last week, sending a letter to every House lawmaker condemning Holder's "open defiance" of the GOP probe and warning that the group will be watching closely as lawmakers cast their votes on contempt.
Chris Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist, also accused the administration of launching the Fast and Furious program as an effort to promote tougher gun control laws.
"The reason we support the contempt resolution is the same reason we first called for Attorney General Holder’s resignation more than a year ago: the Department’s obstruction of congressional oversight of a program that cost lives in support of an anti-gun agenda," Cox wrote.
The NRA's move puts intense pressure on some threatened Democrats to buck their party and vote in favor of the contempt citation. At least four Democrats — Reps. Jim Matheson (Utah), John Barrow (Ga.), Collin Peterson (Minn.) and Nick Rahall (W.V.) — have already said they'll support the measure.
Larson said the NRA's lobbying will "certainly" affect Thursday's vote, but added that "a vast majority of Democrats — especially those that are familiar with the facts of the case" — will vote against the resolution Thursday.
"You'd have to ask the individual members how they're going to respond," Larson said, "but the majority of this caucus — a strong majority of this caucus — will be with Elijah Cummings," the Maryland Democrat and ranking member of the House Oversight Committee who's leading the charge against the contempt resolution.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) was also upfront about the NRA's influence this week, conceding that "there are some [Democratic] members who will consider the recommendations of the NRA."
"Whether they think those recommendations are founded or not, I don't know at this point in time," he told reporters Tuesday.
The Democrats have accused Republicans of using the contempt vote as a political bludgeon designed to embarrass President Obama and prevent Congress from acting on legislation that might improve the economy to the benefit of the White House.
"They'd rather see President Obama fail than the nation succeed," Larson charged. "A pothole isn't Democrat or Republican. ... That's what we should be focusing on."
Over the weekend, Issa fanned the political flames over the contempt vote when he suggested he has evidence the Obama administration hoped to use the program to promote a ban on assault weapons.
"We have email from people involved in this that are talking about using what they’re finding here to support the — basically assault weapons ban," Issa told ABC's "This Week."
The comments brought a quick rebuke from Democrats, who want to see the evidence.
"If he has those documents," Hoyer said, "he ought to show them to people."